DERRY, N.H. — Taking the stage at a wedding venue and winery alongside an icy pond, Ron DeSantis reminded New Hampshire voters how, as Florida’s governor, he had “beat the far left on issue after issue after issue:” on COVID-19 mandates, on education policy, on crime.
It’s that record, he argued, that would enable Republicans to win back the presidency in November.
“It’s very simple,” DeSantis, who is expected to place a distant third in Tuesday’s primary, said this week. “I tell you what I’m going to do: You entrust me with your vote and elect me to office and I proceed to get into office and do what I told you I would do.”
DeSantis’ rise to presidential contender was built on his transformation of Florida into a laboratory for conservative policies once considered fringe ideas in modern politics. But as he’s offered to bring that same vision to the rest of the country, his culture-war agenda in Florida has failed to persuade voters outside of his home state that he’s the right person to lead the country.
“DeSantis wants to fight it in the courtrooms, in the schools — he wants to fight the ‘good fight,’ I think,” said Matthew Albion, 19, of Dover, as he waited to see former President Donald Trump at a rally in Concord on Friday night. “But I’m not sure it’s the right way to go about this. It’s also going to alienate half the country.”
After notching a distant second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses last week, DeSantis is poised to do even worse in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Tuesday. Polls show Trump in position to win about half the vote, while about a third of voters say they’ll vote for former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
DeSantis, meanwhile, is mired in the single-digits in the Granite State and has largely shifted his campaign to South Carolina. He abruptly scrapped two planned television interviews on Sunday and scheduled a last-minute meet-and-greet in New Hampshire after spending Saturday in South Carolina.
In interviews, voters in New Hampshire said that while they see the cultural issues DeSantis has pursued in Florida as important, they’re largely unmoved by his record of banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation and restricting gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth. Their top priorities are almost exclusively the U.S. economy and immigration.
Rishi Desai, a health care worker from Bedford, New Hampshire, who attended a Thursday Haley campaign event at a banquet hall along the Nashua River in Hollis, said that his top priority is the rising cost of living and government spending. At 29 years old, he said he’s “nowhere close to being able to buy a home.” DeSantis’ record of tackling culture war issues in Florida isn’t a main selling point, Desai said.
“I get it. These are important social issues and things that have gone wrong in certain areas,” said Desai, an independent who said he’s not yet decided on who will support in the Tuesday Republican primary. “But I think we need to keep our eyes on the prize, and that’s the economy, that’s energy prices, how our tax policies are being spent.”
At the same Haley event, Ernie Petit, 67, said that he is more concerned about illegal immigration and U.S. border security — which has also been a major part of DeSantis’ campaign pitch — and sees issues like gender identity as less important.
“I think if you want to be president you have to deal with what the president should be doing,” Petit, who also lives in Bedford, said. “The woke stuff and all that is just entertainment, sort of.”
DeSantis has cast Florida for years as the state where “woke goes to die,” touting his efforts to banish critical race theory from classrooms, prohibit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida schools and support a “culture of life” by signing into law new restrictions on abortions.
Working with a state Legislature that’s been largely compliant with his policy demands, DeSantis has reshaped Florida into a bastion of cultural conservatism, helping build himself into the kind of Republican thought-leader that many in the party see as presidential material, either now or in the future.
But even in Florida, which is in the midst of its annual 60-day legislative session, there are signs that the cultural battles that DeSantis has become famous for waging are slowing down. Florida state Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Jacksonville, has noticed that, this year, Republicans in the Legislature don’t have as big of an appetite for culture war issues.
Yes, there are still some issues popping up. Earlier this month, state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia introduced the Kamala Harris Truth in Slavery Teaching Act, which would require students to learn that Democrats were “the party of slavery.”
But the tone has shifted, she said.
“They are still moving, but not as vigilantly, not as powerfully and not as not as aggressively,” Hinson said. “I think it is a result of polling.”
There’s at least some data to back that up. A New York Times/Siena College poll released in July found that Republican primary voters were more than twice as likely to support a GOP candidate “who focuses on restoring law and order in our streets and at the border” than one who focuses on combating “woke” culture and policies.
DeSantis’ “war on woke” also cost him the support of some major donors, including hedge fund CEO Kenneth Griffin, who soured on the Florida governor over his public feud with Disney fueled by DeSantis’ controversial education policies.
During the first Republican presidential debate in August, DeSantis notably avoided using the word “woke” at all.
“I don’t think it is dead but I think it is dying,” Hinson said. “I believe there is pushback from all segments of the population, and I don’t mean just Democrats.”
Not “important” enough
Even in Iowa, where Republican voters tend to be more culturally conservative than in New Hampshire, some voters were unsure about DeSantis’ record in Florida. Stacy Blakeley, 51, said that she sees DeSantis as too willing to pick fights over social and cultural issues, and talked about the need for a president that could unite Americans.
“We need someone who’s not going to alienate people with a bunch of rhetoric; someone who’s not just going to stir the pot,” said Blakeley, who attended a Haley event in Ames, Iowa last weekend ahead of the caucuses. “You all are really good at that in Florida.”
For many Republicans, the culture wars are still very much a matter of concern. In stump speeches, Haley still notes that she’s opposed to allowing “biological boys playing in girls sports.” And at a rally in Concord, New Hampshire, on Friday night, Trump vowed to “cut federal funding for any school pushing critical race theory, transgender insanity and other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content onto the lives of our children.”
But no 2024 presidential candidate has made that point as central to his political brand as DeSantis. And while voters enamored with Trump’s charisma haven’t been swayed by much of anything other Republicans have done to win their votes, polling and last week’s results in Iowa have shown that DeSantis’ culture wars haven’t done much to move those voters more focused on policy.
Waiting in line to see Trump in Concord, New Hampshire, on Friday, Debbie Gibbs, 65, said that she admired DeSantis’ accomplishments in Florida. She said that combating “wokeness” is important to her, but added that she doesn’t believe that DeSantis is the right person to lead the country — at least not right now.
“I love what he’s doing for Florida. I really, really do,” said Gibbs. “But because of where we are right now, I don’t know if he’s strong enough to be able to handle the whole country. I know he believes in what he’s doing in Florida and that’s great. But I don’t think he’s ready to run the country.”
But other New Hampshire voters aren’t as sold on DeSantis’ record in Florida. Among them is Robert Winterbottom, 73, of Stoddard, New Hampshire, who attended Haley’s rally in Peterborough on Saturday and said that he hadn’t been moved by DeSantis’ culture-war rhetoric.
“On some of his policies and this campaign against wokeness — I don’t think it’s important,” Winterbottom said.
Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.
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